The arrival of Sarah Palin brings a special something to the 2016 campaign, like a little LSD added to the punch bowl. Are we watching C-SPAN, or a reality TV show, or a “Saturday Night Live” skit? It is impossible to tell without consulting the channel guide.
Ted Cruz may have secured the coveted “Duck Dynasty” blessing. But Palin is the original and best representative of Kardashian conservatism. Her endorsement of Donald Trump was entirely devoid of policy content – a speech that did not even aspire to shallowness. It is enough that Trump is “going rogue” and “ticking people off” and “making media heads spin.”
Palin has been entirely consumed and replaced by her own bitterness against a Republican establishment she feels betrayed her, and against a media that mocked her. More than anything else she clings to resentment and rage. And her revolution, over time, has become comprehensive; not just a revolt against elites, but a revolt against syntax and taste and preparation and reason.
The phenomenon of Palin raises the question: Does populism need to be anti-intellectual? The answer is “no.” The populist mythology surrounding Abraham Lincoln was not only the rail-splitter born in a log cabin but the youth who studied books by candlelight. He was, indeed, dismissed as a rube. But he wasn’t one. He quoted Shakespeare with ease and suffused politics with thought.
Populism, by definition, is anti-elitist. But that is very different from being anti-intellectual. It was William F. Buckley who provided the best description of conservative anti-elitism. “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.” The assumption of wisdom in average people is the basis for free-market economics and, ultimately, for democratic theory. But every conservative would hope that the phone-book ruling class would possess some knowledge of our national history, some acquaintance with our founding documents, some ability to make reasoned political arguments. These things they would not gain from watching “Celebrity Apprentice” or “Amazing America with Sarah Palin.”
In this vacuity, Palin and Trump are a perfect match. They both embrace a politics of personality, a politics at war with reason. Who would go to either for advice on Medicare reform or Syrian policy? In the two-dimensional politics of Palin and Trump, depth is not even a category.
The danger of anti-intellectual politics is that it quickly becomes unmoored from real problems and real answers. In American history, anti-intellectual populism has often become conspiratorial, focusing anger against powerful and imaginary enemies: the Masons, the international bankers, the Jesuits, the munitions makers. “How can we account for our present situation,” asked Sen. Joe McCarthy in 1951, “unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”
Trump rose to political prominence through the power of birtherism – a movement in which every disproof was regarded as evidence of an even broader conspiracy. But Trump also made a mark connecting vaccinations to autism. The idea is “completely discredited” by scientific studies and dangerous to children. But Trump refuses to back down, asserting “the doctors lied” and the studies have been “fudged up.”
The same is true on other issues. Trump attacks refugees as a serious potential source of terrorism – though the nearly two-year process of being selected by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, then intensively screened by various U.S. agencies, makes this method of infiltration absurdly difficult. He says many undocumented immigrants are rapists and drug dealers – an absurd claim with no empirical basis. He blames immigrants for depressed wages in America – though this effect is small and swamped by other factors such as globalization and technological change.
In these cases, Trump is not proposing obnoxious solutions to real challenges; he is promoting obnoxious solutions to fake or wildly exaggerated challenges. His anti-intellectualism is severing the ties between the GOP and reality. If Republicans choose to inhabit the Trump-Palin world, they will offer little of value to our own.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.